Monday, September 3, 2012

Piglucci's Call to Arms

Steven Novella at Neurologica was so bold as to address Piglucci's attack on bad skeptics. I think he failed. My post below.

Dear Professor Novella,
You write "Massimo’s point is that, as a community, we need to constantly remind ourselves that, while we respect and aspire to reason, we are imperfect and subject to bias and motivated reasoning just like every other human being."
Prof. Pigliuccki does write "The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant." The opinions themselves are held to be unreasonable. Perhaps he feels he personally doesn't "dimiss" unreasonable opinions, much less imply they are "crazy or irrelevant," and those who hold unreasonable opinions do. But this clearly implies that it is first of all the rationality of certain opinions he is attacking, not just bad manners. I think you misrepresent him.
In fact, I dare say that when Prof. Pigliucci is so kind as to label his targets A, B and C, we should take him at his word. Prof. Pigliucci is not reminding us to be humble and mild-mannered, he is attacking A) anti-intellectualism, B) I'm smarter than you syndrome and C) failure of leadership.
As for his assault on A, he quickly aims his fire at..."scientism." He add anti-intellectualism "proper" next. This is frankly what political writers have called an amalgam, falsely lumping together two different things to rhetorically taint the one with the other. Whatever your feelings about so-called scientism, redefining it as anti-intellectualism means excluding science from the sphere of intellect.
And looking at his list of objectionable opinions, it is by no means clear which (any, even?) are in fact attributable to "scientism." Why do you accept that scientism, whatever you conceive it to be, is anti-intellectualism and that it is responsible for these irrational opinions? And if you don't, why haven't you articulated your disagreement with Prof. Pigliucci on this key point?
Could I suggest instead that it is the undefined nature of skepticism that invites people who hold these irrational opinions? One thing skepticism notably is not, is neither simple atheism nor even scientific materialism. If skepticism were either, it wouldn't be upheld as something separate and better, after all. But, if skepticism is better than materialism, won't people who reject science's materialism sometimes become skeptics? Won't people who reject materialism's dogmatic certainty about science's ability to describe reality sometimes become skeptics?
Isn't the real cure for this kind of embarrassment being a thorough-going discussion as to what metaphysical beliefs skepticism really does hold. If it is anti-realist, or agnostic on the existence or knowability of reality, mustn't it therefore admit to its ranks those who hold what some of us would unhesitatingly affirm to be irrational?
I admit that actually defining skepticism would be a fractious business. But since Prof. Pigliucci is in so many words arguing that the skeptic movement already includes people who are irrational, he is already arguing the movement should be fractionated between the rational and nice as against the irrational and not nice. Instead of a laundry list of specific issues and complaints about people's behavior, wouldn't it be better to clarify thinking about what skepticism really means in terms of ontology, metaphysics, epistemology? It's not materialism or atheism, so what is it?
As for his assault on B, this secondary target is what he perceives as the attitude of too many skeptics. As such, the mere existence of a widespread "I'm smarter than thou" syndrome is as questionable as the use of the pronoun thou. This is a nicely invidious motive to ascribe to people. I also daresay that there are quite a few motives at work in the people whom he dislikes. After all, this is about people whom he dislikes, first for their irrational opinions and secondly for their inability to politely argue their case.
I'm not sure it is legitimate to blend these two criticisms together, but he does. In particular, the importance of the internet means that the contradictions between a public forum and a private blog creates an anarchy of standards. With the best will in the world it is not possible for the same manners to serve in a public debate and a private correspondence.
At any rate, those people who are genuinely concerned that religious fanaticism is a rising menace (to cite one common example,) are not going to be as placid as the professor wishes. To dismiss their ardor as "I'm smarter than thou" really seems to be intentionally demeaning. This is particularly striking in a supposed plea for civilized debate! I'm sure there are other emotions at work in some of the people whose opinions and manners Prof. Pigliucci. My anecdotal but vast experience of people tells me they have all sorts of reasons for their behavior, not just one.
It is also particularly striking that there is no logical connection demonstrated between the problem of anti-intellectualism and the laundry list of behavioral modifications Prof. Pigliucci proposes! There is an implicit demand for deference by others to his professional credentials, I think. That isn't actually an argument. Perhaps I'm misreading and Prof. Pigliucci really does mean to argue that believing only science provides knowledge is irrational. But that argument isn't there either.
As for his assault on C, the bad leaders of the CoR, his vade mecum of skeptical etiquette, is indeed aimed directly at certain people. By their absence we can guess Richard Dawkins (is he a "skeptic?") Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers et al. Now I'm sure that being part of the charmed circle  of approved leaders makes it seem ungrateful to disagree that these should be drummed out of a movement that not only isn't organized, but has no agreed upon principles. I should daresay that this list really has no meaningful role to play in combating anti-intellectualism. But it's not really a program, is it? It's really a bill of indictment. As I read your comments on this aspect of Prof. Piglucci's post, it really seems as though you wish that the bad leaders would plead guilty in return for probation/suspended sentence. Is it really reasonable to think it can work out like that?

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